…and the quest to see everything

Riso Amaro, or Bitter Rice

Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Silvana (Silvana Mangano, Dino de Laurentis’ then wife) are rivals. The former is an illegal and the latter is more conventionally beautiful, supposedly naive and has a union contract. Silvana, in working an Italian convent’s rice fields – What? Those exist? – will face moral ambiguities and questions, mostly about a rival that becomes her friend once in a while.

Silvana asks Francesca about working for a rich family and for hotels. See, they’re two of a handful of woman  Nonetheless, she gets fired for stealing jewellery that she provides for her sleaze of a boyfriend Walter (Vittorio Gassmann) and now she’s in this dump. Silvana is jealous that Francesca actually experienced what it’s like to serve and see riches, Francesca disagrees and is jealous of Silvana’s innocence. There are no flashbacks in this section of the film.

How very Neorealist, I suppose, of the film, to show the bitter realities of its present and not dwell on the fantasies of its glorious past. The film doesn’t idealize Italy, Silvana’s boyfriend Marco (Raf Vallone) thinking about moving to South America, even if Silvana mentions North America as a suitable place to move as well. Later on, Walter talks about jail and house crises, the most obvious political commentary in the film. Otherwise, it’s all about these four characters, trying to survive either legitimately or otherwise.

The only evidence of glamour and richness in the film is the said heavy diamond necklace that Francesca supposedly steals, causing a public scandal. It goes through a change of hands from Francesca to Silvana,the latter showing it off to remind the former of her crime. The revelation that the necklace is a fake is a metaphor but not a heavy-handed one.

I’m not sure if I can call these women tough or overdependent, I suppose they’re a bit of both. They’ll work even if it’s raining. It’s not like they’re secluded from the world by working inside a convent neither, receiving love letters from their men who for some reason know where they are. They sometimes escape from the convent and dance. Some mention finding bushes to be alone on.

The film ends, and tell one of my friends that it wasn’t so bad. He disagrees and tells me it’s a lesser Neorealist film, and the fact that it mixes the gangster and the melodrama within the style makes it a less pure example of the genre, even if it did popularize it outside Italian markets. And don’t worry about me, I have a litany of complaints about this movie as well. Like why does the poor Silvana, and sometimes Francesca, have nice, form-fitting clean clothes and hair, everyone else looking crappier and frizzier? Why are these women leaning over so beautifully as they’re supposedly working hard to plant rice in these fields? Why does everyone’s singing voices sound the same? Why is sexy jazz music playing in sad or rapey moments? Why do guys force their mouths on the women’s mouths? Why do the bad guys always have to dress like pre-Godard antiheroes?

There are great moments of filmmaking here like the dance scene, always cutting back and forth from wide shots of the dance and close-ups of the necklace, keeping it as tense as possible. Or shot contershots when Walter looks a bigger man than he should be.

The acting’s not perfect neither, but there’s something commendable about the four leads. Dowling, despite telling the sexiest abortion story in this history of cinema, has moments in a more psychologically complex character than she normally would have gotten in her Hollywood years. Or more complex than Blue Dahlia, anyway. Vallone can make a clichéd move like wipe-clapping his  wrists after knocking a man out seem like an instinct. And Gassman’s campy, an adjective I refuse to give as a compliment.

The best actor here is Mangano. There has always been something vulnerable about Silvana, going after Francesca and turning the workers against her like David fighting a giant. Or going insane after finding out about a coworker’s miscarriage. Finding out that she’s been lied to, that all her fantasies about getting out rich have been squashed. She realizes so many things in the last few scenes of the film that she turns catatonic. It’s probably one of the greatest cries I’ve seen an actress do, Mangano shaking to the bone. She’s the reason the dated film stands out.

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